June 1, 2000 | Magazine Archive

BUILDING BRIDGES Armenians Enter the Canadian Political Arena

by Hrag Vartanian

Armenians have begun to take advantage of Canada’s growing willingness for ethnic communities to take part on all levels. Slowly Armenians are learning to build coalitions with other Canadian communities as they discover common interests and goals.

In Canada’s House of Commons, Sarkis Assadourian’s strong accent is not unique among his multicultural peers who represent a diverse cross-section of communities across Canada. Elected in 1993, he is the first and only Member of Parliament (MP) of Armenian descent.

Born in Aleppo, Syria’s tough New Village neighborhood, Sarkis Assadourian came to North America in pursuit of his dream of becoming an artist. He studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and when his American visa expired he emigrated to Canada in 1970 where he joined his family in Montreal. Practicality prevailed and Assadourian reconsidered his future in art.

Two years later, he moved with his wife and four children to Toronto and quickly developed an interest in politics. After unsuccessful attempts at becoming a Toronto School Board Trustee and a candidate for the federal Liberal party, he placed his political ambitions on hold when he realized, “This is not an immigrant’s job, it’s an establishment game–you have to be part of the establishment to play.” While still learning the rules of the game, Assadourian established a local contracting business and remained politically active as a member of the Liberal party. He soon became Executive Director of the Armenian Community Center in Toronto and established the Outstanding Canadian Award given annually to individuals contributing to the plurality of Canadian society. But, it wasn’t until 1988 that he rekindled his political dreams and garnered enough local support to become a Liberal candidate in Don Valley North, the only Toronto district with a high Armenian concentration.

Though he lost the 1988 election by 302 votes, Assadourian explains that the event had important implications for Armenian-Canadians. “That election gave confidence to the entire Armenian community in Canada that, yes, we can be ‘foreigners’ and still play the game. It was a boost for the morale. Armenians came together and celebrated the new potential for political success.”

Assadourian discovered a new confidence and seemed closer to his political dreams than ever. Finally in 1993, Assadourian achieved that dream by beating the incumbent in Don Valley North with an overwhelming majority.

Assadourian recalls that he briefly encountered his challenger during the campaign and he took her aside joking that his license plate read “MP2B”-something, he said, he would happily give her after the election.

“How many countries can you point to that someone like me who comes as an immigrant or refugee with no formal education can have the opportunity to become an MP?” Assadourian quickly added, “Tell me if the U.S. would give you that chance?”

Everything seemed to be going well for him until 1996, when a controversial question he posed on the floor of the House galvanized the Armenian community in Canada. Assadourian’s question was, “Can the minister assure the House that the government will review its policy towards Armenia to guarantee the protection of the democratic process and the physical safety and human rights of Armenian citizens?” The outcry was unexpected as Armenian-Canadian organizations quickly issued a letter to the Prime Minister and other key government officials criticizing MP Assadourian’s right to speak on their behalf. Assadourian’s Don Quixote-style, according to one detractor, was causing grief and embarrassment to Armenians.

The MP felt repercussions in his own electoral district in Toronto during the following elections when Armenians began supporting other candidates. Without a district, his loyalty to the Liberal party was repaid when he was appointed as the party’s candidate in the suburban Toronto district of Brampton Center, a district he won in the 1997 elections.

Today, only four Armenian families among 38,000 families live in his district but Assadourian continues to be a vocal advocate for Armenian issues and last year controversial statements by two top ranking Canadian officials forced Assadourian to spring to action.

The first incident occurred when the Canadian Prime Minister made a surprise announcement during an official visit to Auschwitz that Canada would be building a Holocaust museum. Assadourian retorted in the Canadian media that the museum should include all twentieth century crimes against humanity, including Armenians, without singling out any particular group. The Prime Minister’s original announcement puzzled Assadourian, “How can the government commemorate one group of victims and not others?”

Since then, his proposal has received thousands of letters of support, predominantly from Ukrainian and Chinese-Canadians, and the MP has been able to build a cross-cultural coalition of 23 committees in support of his inclusive museum exhibit. “Ninety million people died in the twentieth century as a result of crimes against humanity,” Assadourian says, “Why not include them?” The Minister of Foreign Affairs initiated the second controversy when he made a statement in the Parliament insinuating that the Armenian Genocide was a result of revolts by Armenians against Turkish authority.

An angered Assadourian confronted the Minister later that afternoon, “Now, Mr. Minister, go out in the lobby and justify the Jewish Holocaust.” Taken aback, the Minister asked why. Assadourian responded, “Because you justified the Armenian Genocide. If uprisings are a reason for Genocide, then there were two uprisings in Warsaw during the Holocaust.”

The Minister later made a statement in Parliament that the events of 1915 were, “an attempt to eliminate an ethnic minority,” which Assadourian quickly points out is the closest he would get rather than using the term Genocide.

While the MP doesn’t believe Canada will officially recognize the Genocide in the near future, in Assadourian’s opinion Canada is ahead of other Western nations. But many obstacles still remain, including a billion dollars of annual trade between Turkey and Canada which greatly overshadows Canada’s eight million dollar economic relationship with Armenia.

Montreal city councilor Noushig Eloyan knows first-hand the difficulty of working with Canadian bureaucracy on the issue of the Armenian Genocide since she took on the most controversial project of her political career, the building of the Genocide memorial in Montreal.

Born in Aleppo, Syria, but raised in Lebanon until the age of 17, Eloyan initially moved to Washington D.C. to study architecture. She fell in love with Montreal during a summer visit and decided to continue her studies at Montreal’s Concordia University where she completed a degree in civil engineering. Years later, after working as an engineer and in the field of real estate, she decided it was time for a change. In 1994, through the encouragement of a politically active friend she made a decision to run for city council. Soon after announcing her candidacy, Eloyan received a phone call from Pierre Bourque, a former civil servant who wanted to be mayor, asking her to join his newly formed municipal party. She jumped at the opportunity.

After her election victory, the new mayor appointed the political novice as Chair of the Executive Committee, which Eloyan regards as a symbol of the Mayor’s respect for the various cultural communities and his desire to see them included in city politics.

Her first term was difficult but Eloyan excelled in her duties. Her biggest challenge was still to be faced as fierce opposition arose when she proposed a monument commemorating the Armenian Genocide on public property. “I insisted on having it on public land,” Eloyan elaborates, “because it shows that the municipality was backing the project.”

She decided that the first step was to have the Genocide recognized by the city, which Eloyan was able to do with the cooperation of the mayor and two other city councilors of Armenian descent, Jack Tchadirjian and Hasmig Belleli. But plans to erect a Genocide memorial in a public park encountered strong lobbying from the Turkish Embassy and the Canadian government, both eager for Montreal to shelve the project.

Eloyan remembers that Turkish officials tried everything to stop the project. “They promised economic projects for the city of Montreal in order to get the mayor’s attention, and suggested that it could harm relations,” Eloyan recounts.

Regardless of the pressure, the Mayor and councilors prevailed and Eloyan remembers the event as, “One of the greatest moments in my life.”

Through careful negotiations, it was decided that the monument’s cost would be evenly split between the municipality and the Montreal Armenian community. They also agreed that the final monument would be accompanied by a plaque which would read, “On the occasion of the 83rd Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, when 1,500,000 Armenians were victims, we dedicate this work to all the martyrs of the Genocide and convince all citizens to engage towards tolerance and social harmony. This acknowledgment is inscribed in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man.” and would be signed by the Armenian community of Montreal.Nothing about the monument proved to be easy. “We had to fight for three years for these two sentences on the plaque,” Eloyan says. In 1997, in accordance with city policy, a public art competition was announced and a French-Canadian artist, Francine Larivée, was selected to complete the important commission.

Today, the genocide monument stands in Marcelin-Wilson park in Eloyan’s home district of l’Acadie, which claims the highest concentration of Armenians in Canada. The “monument that almost wasn’t”, as one Montreal reporter termed it, stands as a testament to the survivors of the Genocide and its place in the public memory.

“Although it was the Armenian community who asked and paid for it, it is dedicated to all victims of genocide,” Eloyan says, “In this matter, we can’t just keep it to ourselves. If we want to have a better world then we have to fight together in order to stop these types of atrocities.” While other ethnic groups did not directly contribute to the project, their endorsement of the monument has been one of the wonderful surprises of the project. “Last year, Greeks were there to commemorate their own atrocities, the Ukrainians had a special commemoration day on Ukrainian issues and Africans also went there. It’s a place that unites every victim,” Eloyan comments with a special pride, “I’m quite proud of it.”

In 1998, Eloyan reconfirmed her commitment to the Armenian community by inviting the mayor of Yerevan to sign a declaration of economic and cultural cooperation between the two cities.

For Eloyan, her Armenian heritage has been nothing but an asset to her position on the city council, “Some of the other cultural groups who do not have representatives on the council count on me. They see me, and probably also Belleli and councilor Marie Deros, as their representatives since we are from ethnic communities.”

Currently all three Montreal city councilors of Armenian descent are women–certainly a unique scenario anywhere in the Armenian world.

Hasmig Belleli, also fought for the Genocide monument, and has been councilor for the predominantly French district of Ahuntsic since 1994. She admits that after six years in office there is still so much to learn, “Politics is a very good school, it will teach you everyday.” Born Hasmig Vasilian in Lebanon, Belleli remembers what compelled her and her husband to choose Canada, “Canada is young, and we’re young-we’ll grow up together.” After 33 years of living in Montreal, she has never regretted her decision.

The other councilor crucial to the Genocide memorial fight, Jack Tchadirjian, was defeated in the 1998 elections, but another councilor of Armenian descent has emerged on the municipal scene, Marie Deros.

Born in Athens, Deros arrived at a young age in Montreal and was raised in the multicultural Park Extension region by her Greek father and Armenian mother. Deros is already a member of the Executive Committee and Chair of Sports, Leisure and Social Development. Prior to politics, she worked in the tourist industry and was president of the Park Extension Youth Organization. Deros has a mammoth job of serving one of the poorest districts in all of Canada, but welcomes the challenges that she will face.

The future looks promising in Eloyan’s opinion, “We have an MP at the federal level, three city councilors in Montreal, and young Armenians working in different cabinets at the provincial level in Quebec–so this is a good start.”

Eloyan’s advice to the new generation is simple. “I try to tell them at every chance, if I can do it you can do it. You have to believe in it and you have to work hard for it. Probably we’ll see some interesting people emerge in a couple of years, and if I can help them I will be glad to do so.”

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